On 14 July, French President Jacques Chirac was the target of an apparent assassination attempt during his review of military units taking part in the country's annual Bastille Day parade. Since then, French authorities and media have revealed details of the alleged attacker's allegiance to far-right extremist groups militantly promoting neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-American, and anti-globalization views.
Paris, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- French authorities let it be known this week that five years ago they had placed Maxime Brunerie, the young man who allegedly sought to kill President Jacques Chirac on 14 July on an official list of extreme-right sympathizers.
Brunerie was arrested at Paris's Bastille Day parade after he was said to have fired one or two rounds from a 22-millimeter rifle at the president, who was reviewing military units less than 100 meters away. At that distance, the police say, a well-aimed bullet could have been lethal. But parade spectators say they deflected Brunerie's aim and disarmed him. Police then quickly arrested him.
A judge later ordered Brunerie, 25, to submit to at least a month of psychiatric examinations in order to determine whether he is fit to stand trial for an assassination attempt. Doctors who examined Brunerie after the incident found him to be "dangerous to himself and others."
Police believe that Brunerie's action was premeditated. They say that he purchased the rifle and ammunition on 6 July. In the days leading up to the shooting, the police say, Brunerie told close friends and fellow far-right extremists that he intended to kill Chirac, although the friends say they thought the threat was not serious.
And less than 24 hours before the rifle was fired, Brunerie posted a message on an Internet site belonging to the British extreme-right group Blood and Honor. The message, written in English, read: "Look at television on Sunday. I'll be the star. Death to Zog, 88!" In the parlance of extreme-right groups in Europe and the United States, "Zog," stands for "Zionist occupation government." The number "88" symbolizes "Heil Hitler" -- the letter "h" being the eighth in the English alphabet.
France's General Intelligence service -- a reputedly efficient, state-run, domestic-information network employing thousands -- first took note of Brunerie in a 1998 report, not long after he joined an extreme-right group. There are several such groups today, whose total membership is generally estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000, although some analysts say there are many more.
These relatively small groups -- "groupouscules" in French --- far exceed Jean-Marie le Pen's far-right and mass-movement National Front Party in extremist zeal and ideological fervor. They all more or less espouse publicly the same Neo-nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-American, and anti-globalization views. They communicate with one another, and their counterparts abroad, in large part through the Internet.
The most important and influential among them is Radical Unity, an extreme-right group to which Brunerie has belonged for several years. Until the 14 July assassination attempt, however, the French public has largely remained ignorant of the existence of Radical Unity and the other extreme-right groupouscules.
Our correspondent spoke with Patrick Gaubert, the president of France's International League Against Racism, or LICRA. Gaubert said the shooting on the Champs-Elysees is serving as a wake-up call to many French. "[French] public opinion seems to be discovering a world which is dangerous, which is made up of violent individuals. This is not just folklore. These are men who are ready to do anything to promote their racist, xenophobic ideas -- sometimes to kill, [but] often, unhappily, [simply] to beat up or just hit men and women. These are groups that are on official lists [of extremists] compiled by the police, who prefer to observe and write reports about them rather than ban them," Gaubert said.
Gaubert himself was the object of an apparent assassination attempt nine years ago, when he served for three years (1993-95) as an antiracism counselor for the Interior Ministry in the last conservative government. To this day, he said, he remains under police protection.
Gaubert is convinced that France's extreme-right groups must be banned. "Yes, I am definitely for banning them. We can't allow them to continue [to act], these groups with such ideas, these groups that are [well-]organized, that publish journals, that have Internet sites. It's an entire world, supposedly unknown but in fact quite well-known [to the government]. French law permits their interdiction, but the law is not enough. There also must be a political will to do so," Gaubert said.
During his three years at the Interior Ministry in the 1990s, Gaubert recalled that he was unable to complete the work of dismantling the extremist groups. He said that was because of a lack of political will at a higher level.
But Gaubert believes that the apparent assassination attempt of 14 July may have what he calls a "healthy" effect in alerting the government to the danger now posed by the far-right extremists. Today, he said, the extremists are "going after the president of the republic [and] want to change the republic." That, he added, should "open the eyes" of many high officials.
Other French antiracism organizations have joined Gaubert's LICRA in calling for the banning of extreme-right groups such as Radical Unity. The president of the Movement Against Racism and For Friendship Among Peoples, or MRAP, Mouloud Aounit, told the "Le Monde" daily on 16 July that existing laws should be used to dismantle Radical Unity. Aounit himself has been the target of death threats on the Internet.
The Marc Bloch Association, named after a distinguished French historian executed by the Nazis, has also called for the dissolution of Radical Unity. The association, which fights against those who deny the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, describes the group as "a tightly structured anti-Semitic organization brandishing Nazi colors."
Whether or not the current French conservative government will act to suppress Radical Unity and other extreme-right groups still depends, as Gaubert said, on the political will to do so. That almost certainly means a decision by Chirac himself, after recommendations from his prime minister and interior minister.
For at least two reasons, nothing is likely to be done for some weeks, or perhaps months. First, it has to be determined whether Brunerie is fit for trial. Second, the wheels of justice are known to grind exceedingly slowly in France, where the number of judges, magistrates, and legal aides today is simply insufficient to cope with the growing number of criminal cases.